An Open Letter to Product Managers: From a UX Designer

I’ve been fortunate to hold diverse roles as a UX designer. I’ve managed my own consulting company, worked at a digital agency, and helped build two companies that were acquired. So, I’ve worked with many product managers throughout my career. And one experience early on still sticks with me. I thought I would share it today as an open letter to all product managers.

I was a young UX designer working at a software company. One day, our product manager presented me with a challenge to improve a feature that was confounding our users. It was my first real chance prove myself at this company. I was all ears as he explained what was happening.

It turned out that a new feature had been rolled out recently. It was being heavily used, but was causing a ton of confusion with our customers. So much confusion that the VP of Support was getting angry emails from our customers. Not good.

Over the next week or so, we debated, negotiated, and eventually produced a more intuitive way to present the capability to users. And after a bit of initial feedback from a few team members, we were convinced that this new design was a much better experience.

On the day that we presented our new design to the CEO, I walked into the room full of confidence. That’s why what happened next hit me so hard.

In the middle of the meeting, the CEO interrupted our product manager and criticized our new design direction. “How does this make things better?” he asked bluntly. “I don’t see why this design is an improvement over our existing approach.” Before I could open my mouth, the product manager spoke on my behalf. “I agree with you,” he said. “Ray made a design error and we will make it work more like it did.”

I could not believe what I was hearing. After all our collaboration, the product manager did not even try to explain the rationale behind our designs or that customers were unhappy. Where was his backbone? I left that review feeling sick to my stomach.

“We both agreed on this direction,” I thought. “Why am I being singled out here?”

That design review taught me a lesson: I am only as good as my product manager. The relationship between the product manager and UX designer should benefit both people and lead to great work. We must share a sense of co-ownership for our product and its design. We should both be working to serve customers.

Now, it’s true that we often see the world differently. But our different points of view should strengthen our work and produce the best end result possible. And the decisions we arrive at are equally ours. That’s why it cut deep when my product manager threw me under the bus.

Here is how that situation could have been avoided. And thus, here is my desire for every product manager I work with. Please:

Own the strategy
It is the product manager’s job to set the product’s strategy before any designs are done. When UX designers have a clear picture of where the product is going — and why — they produce new designs with this strategy in mind. This gives the product manager and UX designer a shared sense of mission to deliver the best end result for their users.

Give clear feedback
Product managers should not settle if they feel that their UX designer’s work is not up to par — but they should ensure that their feedback is clear and actionable. It’s certainly not uncommon for the direction to change several times before completion. But when change is required, product managers can help by asking questions and engaging in a dialogue about different approaches to solve the design challenge.

Stay strong
The product manager and UX designer must walk into a design review as a team and walk out as a team. If a review goes poorly, then the team fails together. But neither person should ever shrink down from owning their decisions — or absolve their responsibility. The worst thing a product manager can do is say, “Yes” to a new design direction, then blame it on the UX designer when questioned. Absolving ownership of product-related decisions shows a true lack of leadership.

On the flip side, a successful review should be shared together as a team. A good design comes from the collaboration of the two, not just from the UX designer.

Collaboration is essential to build great products. That’s why it’s important for UX designers and product managers to work closely together and stick together.

Remember that the product manager and UX designer have a unique, shared understanding of how to deliver a great user experience. They should use this knowledge to their advantage and remember that they have the same, shared end goal: to build lovable products that delight users and be happy along the way.

How can product managers and UX designers best collaborate?

About Ray and Aha!

Ray loves to create awesome UX solutions. He is User Experience Lead at Aha! - the world’s #1 product roadmap software. Prior to Aha! Ray led the user experience team at Pearson -- the world's largest education company.

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Comments

  1. Jeremy W

    Hey Ray, I was very surprised to hear how your PM decided to handle the situation; terribly sorry to read about what must’ve been a frustrating and negative experience for you. I admire your personal philosophy and your ability to take some positive learnings away from what must’ve been an embarrassing and painful moment. Grateful for you sharing it.

    Reply
  2. MJ Schavitz

    Unfortunately, your PM did throw you under the bus, and your CEO couldn’t recognize the improvement. Sorry for you on both counts! Next time, when you present to a CEO, start your presentation with one page on why you are proposing to change the current flow, and show the old and new design together screen by screen to show the pain points and how this will improve the experience so the CEO understands. CEOs have a very short attention span, and you have to start out with the problem and then the resolution.

    I’ve been a PM for multiple corporations involved in user applications. In my experience, not all UX designers are usability experts. Sounds like you are both, so that’s good. To best collaborate, the PM must involve UX at the beginning of the product and lay out the intent of the product. They must stay in close contact on all product decisions that involve UX, and UX designers must stay in close contact on any changes on design intent or direction. They must both have the user’s experience in highest focus for success. Ultimately, the PM is responsible for the product as they own it, and having a great UX designer is a huge benefit to the entire product team for a successful product.

    Reply
  3. jannie marais

    I am a product manager with no UX person. I have been through this a lot and realized that explaining the user problem and pain is the best starting point.

    Reply

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